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Mark Twain > Innocents Abroad > Chapter XIX

Innocents Abroad

Chapter XIX


"Do you wis zo haut can be?"

That was what the guide asked when we were looking up at the bronze
horses on the Arch of Peace. It meant, do you wish to go up there?
I give it as a specimen of guide-English. These are the people that make
life a burthen to the tourist. Their tongues are never still. They talk
forever and forever, and that is the kind of billingsgate they use.
Inspiration itself could hardly comprehend them. If they would only show
you a masterpiece of art, or a venerable tomb, or a prison-house, or a
battle-field, hallowed by touching memories or historical reminiscences,
or grand traditions, and then step aside and hold still for ten minutes
and let you think, it would not be so bad. But they interrupt every
dream, every pleasant train of thought, with their tiresome cackling.
Sometimes when I have been standing before some cherished old idol of
mine that I remembered years and years ago in pictures in the geography
at school, I have thought I would give a whole world if the human parrot
at my side would suddenly perish where he stood and leave me to gaze, and
ponder, and worship.

No, we did not "wis zo haut can be." We wished to go to La Scala, the
largest theater in the world, I think they call it. We did so. It was a
large place. Seven separate and distinct masses of humanity--six great
circles and a monster parquette.

We wished to go to the Ambrosian Library, and we did that also. We saw a
manuscript of Virgil, with annotations in the handwriting of Petrarch,
the gentleman who loved another man's Laura, and lavished upon her all
through life a love which was a clear waste of the raw material. It was
sound sentiment, but bad judgment. It brought both parties fame, and
created a fountain of commiseration for them in sentimental breasts that
is running yet. But who says a word in behalf of poor Mr. Laura? (I do
not know his other name.) Who glorifies him? Who bedews him with tears?
Who writes poetry about him? Nobody. How do you suppose he liked the
state of things that has given the world so much pleasure? How did he
enjoy having another man following his wife every where and making her
name a familiar word in every garlic-exterminating mouth in Italy with
his sonnets to her pre-empted eyebrows? They got fame and sympathy--he
got neither. This is a peculiarly felicitous instance of what is called
poetical justice. It is all very fine; but it does not chime with my
notions of right. It is too one-sided--too ungenerous.

Let the world go on fretting about Laura and Petrarch if it will; but as
for me, my tears and my lamentations shall be lavished upon the unsung
defendant.

We saw also an autograph letter of Lucrezia Borgia, a lady for whom I
have always entertained the highest respect, on account of her rare
histrionic capabilities, her opulence in solid gold goblets made of
gilded wood, her high distinction as an operatic screamer, and the
facility with which she could order a sextuple funeral and get the
corpses ready for it. We saw one single coarse yellow hair from
Lucrezia's head, likewise. It awoke emotions, but we still live. In
this same library we saw some drawings by Michael Angelo (these Italians
call him Mickel Angelo,) and Leonardo da Vinci. (They spell it Vinci and
pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce.)
We reserve our opinion of these sketches.

In another building they showed us a fresco representing some lions and
other beasts drawing chariots; and they seemed to project so far from the
wall that we took them to be sculptures. The artist had shrewdly
heightened the delusion by painting dust on the creatures' backs, as if
it had fallen there naturally and properly. Smart fellow--if it be smart
to deceive strangers.

Elsewhere we saw a huge Roman amphitheatre, with its stone seats still in
good preservation. Modernized, it is now the scene of more peaceful
recreations than the exhibition of a party of wild beasts with Christians
for dinner. Part of the time, the Milanese use it for a race track, and
at other seasons they flood it with water and have spirited yachting
regattas there. The guide told us these things, and he would hardly try
so hazardous an experiment as the telling of a falsehood, when it is all
he can do to speak the truth in English without getting the lock-jaw.

In another place we were shown a sort of summer arbor, with a fence
before it. We said that was nothing. We looked again, and saw, through
the arbor, an endless stretch of garden, and shrubbery, and grassy lawn.
We were perfectly willing to go in there and rest, but it could not be
done. It was only another delusion--a painting by some ingenious artist
with little charity in his heart for tired folk. The deception was
perfect. No one could have imagined the park was not real. We even
thought we smelled the flowers at first.

We got a carriage at twilight and drove in the shaded avenues with the
other nobility, and after dinner we took wine and ices in a fine garden
with the great public. The music was excellent, the flowers and
shrubbery were pleasant to the eye, the scene was vivacious, everybody
was genteel and well-behaved, and the ladies were slightly moustached,
and handsomely dressed, but very homely.

We adjourned to a cafe and played billiards an hour, and I made six or
seven points by the doctor pocketing his ball, and he made as many by my
pocketing my ball. We came near making a carom sometimes, but not the
one we were trying to make. The table was of the usual European style--
cushions dead and twice as high as the balls; the cues in bad repair.
The natives play only a sort of pool on them. We have never seen any
body playing the French three-ball game yet, and I doubt if there is any
such game known in France, or that there lives any man mad enough to try
to play it on one of these European tables. We had to stop playing
finally because Dan got to sleeping fifteen minutes between the counts
and paying no attention to his marking.

Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some
time, enjoying other people's comfort and wishing we could export some of
it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in
this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe--comfort. In
America, we hurry--which is well; but when the day's work is done, we go
on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry
our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we
ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn
up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into
a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man's prime
in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it
lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the
continent in the same coach he started in--the coach is stabled somewhere
on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days;
when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the
barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own
accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon
ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be,
if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our
edges!

I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the
day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to
a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale
and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the
avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early
evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the
military bands play--no European city being without its fine military
music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in
front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages
that could not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep
well. They are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful,
comfortable, and appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One
never sees a drunken man among them. The change that has come over our
little party is surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness
and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the
tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow
wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.

We have had a bath in Milan, in a public bath-house. They were going to
put all three of us in one bath-tub, but we objected. Each of us had an
Italian farm on his back. We could have felt affluent if we had been
officially surveyed and fenced in. We chose to have three bathtubs, and
large ones--tubs suited to the dignity of aristocrats who had real
estate, and brought it with them. After we were stripped and had taken
the first chilly dash, we discovered that haunting atrocity that has
embittered our lives in so many cities and villages of Italy and France--
there was no soap. I called. A woman answered, and I barely had time to
throw myself against the door--she would have been in, in another second.
I said:

"Beware, woman! Go away from here--go away, now, or it will be the worse
for you. I am an unprotected male, but I will preserve my honor at the
peril of my life!"

These words must have frightened her, for she skurried away very fast.

Dan's voice rose on the air:

"Oh, bring some soap, why don't you!"

The reply was Italian. Dan resumed:

"Soap, you know--soap. That is what I want--soap. S-o-a-p, soap; s-o-p-
e, soap; s-o-u-p, soap. Hurry up! I don't know how you Irish spell it,
but I want it. Spell it to suit yourself, but fetch it. I'm freezing."

I heard the doctor say impressively:

"Dan, how often have we told you that these foreigners cannot understand
English? Why will you not depend upon us? Why will you not tell us what
you want, and let us ask for it in the language of the country? It would
save us a great deal of the humiliation your reprehensible ignorance
causes us. I will address this person in his mother tongue: 'Here,
cospetto! corpo di Bacco! Sacramento! Solferino!--Soap, you son of a
gun!' Dan, if you would let us talk for you, you would never expose your
ignorant vulgarity."

Even this fluent discharge of Italian did not bring the soap at once, but
there was a good reason for it. There was not such an article about the
establishment. It is my belief that there never had been. They had to
send far up town, and to several different places before they finally got
it, so they said. We had to wait twenty or thirty minutes. The same
thing had occurred the evening before, at the hotel. I think I have
divined the reason for this state of things at last. The English know
how to travel comfortably, and they carry soap with them; other
foreigners do not use the article.

At every hotel we stop at we always have to send out for soap, at the
last moment, when we are grooming ourselves for dinner, and they put it
in the bill along with the candles and other nonsense. In Marseilles
they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the
Marseillaise only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they
have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an
uncertain notion of clean shirts, and the peculiarities of the gorilla,
and other curious matters. This reminds me of poor Blucher's note to the
landlord in Paris:

     PARIS, le 7 Juillet. Monsieur le Landlord--Sir: Pourquoi don't you
     mettez some savon in your bed-chambers? Est-ce que vous pensez I
     will steal it? La nuit passee you charged me pour deux chandelles
     when I only had one; hier vous avez charged me avec glace when I had
     none at all; tout les jours you are coming some fresh game or other
     on me, mais vous ne pouvez pas play this savon dodge on me twice.
     Savon is a necessary de la vie to any body but a Frenchman, et je
     l'aurai hors de cet hotel or make trouble. You hear me. Allons.
     BLUCHER.

I remonstrated against the sending of this note, because it was so mixed
up that the landlord would never be able to make head or tail of it; but
Blucher said he guessed the old man could read the French of it and
average the rest.

Blucher's French is bad enough, but it is not much worse than the English
one finds in advertisements all over Italy every day. For instance,
observe the printed card of the hotel we shall probably stop at on the
shores of Lake Como:

     "NOTISH."

     "This hotel which the best it is in Italy and most superb, is
     handsome locate on the best situation of the lake, with the most
     splendid view near the Villas Melzy, to the King of Belgian, and
     Serbelloni. This hotel have recently enlarge, do offer all
     commodities on moderate price, at the strangers gentlemen who whish
     spend the seasons on the Lake Come."

How is that, for a specimen? In the hotel is a handsome little chapel
where an English clergyman is employed to preach to such of the guests of
the house as hail from England and America, and this fact is also set
forth in barbarous English in the same advertisement. Wouldn't you have
supposed that the adventurous linguist who framed the card would have
known enough to submit it to that clergyman before he sent it to the
printer?

Here in Milan, in an ancient tumble-down ruin of a church, is the
mournful wreck of the most celebrated painting in the world--"The Last
Supper," by Leonardo da Vinci. We are not infallible judges of pictures,
but of course we went there to see this wonderful painting, once so
beautiful, always so worshipped by masters in art, and forever to be
famous in song and story. And the first thing that occurred was the
infliction on us of a placard fairly reeking with wretched English. Take
a morsel of it: "Bartholomew (that is the first figure on the left hand
side at the spectator,) uncertain and doubtful about what he thinks to
have heard, and upon which he wants to be assured by himself at Christ
and by no others."

Good, isn't it? And then Peter is described as "argumenting in a
threatening and angrily condition at Judas Iscariot."

This paragraph recalls the picture. "The Last Supper" is painted on the
dilapidated wall of what was a little chapel attached to the main church
in ancient times, I suppose. It is battered and scarred in every
direction, and stained and discolored by time, and Napoleon's horses
kicked the legs off most the disciples when they (the horses, not the
disciples,) were stabled there more than half a century ago.

I recognized the old picture in a moment--the Saviour with bowed head
seated at the centre of a long, rough table with scattering fruits and
dishes upon it, and six disciples on either side in their long robes,
talking to each other--the picture from which all engravings and all
copies have been made for three centuries. Perhaps no living man has
ever known an attempt to paint the Lord's Supper differently. The world
seems to have become settled in the belief, long ago, that it is not
possible for human genius to outdo this creation of da Vinci's. I
suppose painters will go on copying it as long as any of the original is
left visible to the eye. There were a dozen easels in the room, and as
many artists transferring the great picture to their canvases. Fifty
proofs of steel engravings and lithographs were scattered around, too.
And as usual, I could not help noticing how superior the copies were to
the original, that is, to my inexperienced eye. Wherever you find a
Raphael, a Rubens, a Michelangelo, a Carracci, or a da Vinci (and we see
them every day,) you find artists copying them, and the copies are always
the handsomest. Maybe the originals were handsome when they were new,
but they are not now.

This picture is about thirty feet long, and ten or twelve high, I should
think, and the figures are at least life size. It is one of the largest
paintings in Europe.

The colors are dimmed with age; the countenances are scaled and marred,
and nearly all expression is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon
the wall, and there is no life in the eyes. Only the attitudes are
certain.

People come here from all parts of the world, and glorify this
masterpiece. They stand entranced before it with bated breath and parted
lips, and when they speak, it is only in the catchy ejaculations of
rapture:

"Oh, wonderful!"

"Such expression!"

"Such grace of attitude!"

"Such dignity!"

"Such faultless drawing!"

"Such matchless coloring!"

"Such feeling!"

"What delicacy of touch!"

"What sublimity of conception!"

"A vision! A vision!"

I only envy these people; I envy them their honest admiration, if it be
honest--their delight, if they feel delight. I harbor no animosity
toward any of them. But at the same time the thought will intrude itself
upon me, How can they see what is not visible? What would you think of a
man who looked at some decayed, blind, toothless, pock-marked Cleopatra,
and said: "What matchless beauty! What soul! What expression!" What
would you think of a man who gazed upon a dingy, foggy sunset, and said:
"What sublimity! What feeling! What richness of coloring!" What would
you think of a man who stared in ecstasy upon a desert of stumps and
said: "Oh, my soul, my beating heart, what a noble forest is here!"

You would think that those men had an astonishing talent for seeing
things that had already passed away. It was what I thought when I stood
before "The Last Supper" and heard men apostrophizing wonders, and
beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone, a
hundred years before they were born. We can imagine the beauty that was
once in an aged face; we can imagine the forest if we see the stumps; but
we can not absolutely see these things when they are not there. I am
willing to believe that the eye of the practiced artist can rest upon the
Last Supper and renew a lustre where only a hint of it is left, supply a
tint that has faded away, restore an expression that is gone; patch, and
color, and add, to the dull canvas until at last its figures shall stand
before him aglow with the life, the feeling, the freshness, yea, with all
the noble beauty that was theirs when first they came from the hand of
the master. But I can not work this miracle. Can those other uninspired
visitors do it, or do they only happily imagine they do?

After reading so much about it, I am satisfied that the Last Supper was a
very miracle of art once. But it was three hundred years ago.

It vexes me to hear people talk so glibly of "feeling," "expression,"
"tone," and those other easily acquired and inexpensive technicalities of
art that make such a fine show in conversations concerning pictures.
There is not one man in seventy-five hundred that can tell what a
pictured face is intended to express. There is not one man in five
hundred that can go into a court-room and be sure that he will not
mistake some harmless innocent of a juryman for the black-hearted
assassin on trial. Yet such people talk of "character" and presume to
interpret "expression" in pictures. There is an old story that Matthews,
the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the
passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance
could disclose what was passing in the heart plainer than the tongue
could.

"Now," he said, "observe my face--what does it express?"

"Despair!"

"Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?"

"Rage!"

"Stuff! It means terror! This!"

"Imbecility!"

"Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!"

"Joy!"

"Oh, perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!"

Expression! People coolly pretend to read it who would think themselves
presumptuous if they pretended to interpret the hieroglyphics on the
obelisks of Luxor--yet they are fully as competent to do the one thing as
the other. I have heard two very intelligent critics speak of Murillo's
Immaculate Conception (now in the museum at Seville,) within the past few
days. One said:

"Oh, the Virgin's face is full of the ecstasy of a joy that is complete--
that leaves nothing more to be desired on earth!"

The other said:

"Ah, that wonderful face is so humble, so pleading--it says as plainly as
words could say it: 'I fear; I tremble; I am unworthy. But Thy will be
done; sustain Thou Thy servant!'"

The reader can see the picture in any drawing-room; it can be easily
recognized: the Virgin (the only young and really beautiful Virgin that
was ever painted by one of the old masters, some of us think,) stands in
the crescent of the new moon, with a multitude of cherubs hovering about
her, and more coming; her hands are crossed upon her breast, and upon her
uplifted countenance falls a glory out of the heavens. The reader may
amuse himself, if he chooses, in trying to determine which of these
gentlemen read the Virgin's "expression" aright, or if either of them did
it.

Any one who is acquainted with the old masters will comprehend how much
"The Last Supper" is damaged when I say that the spectator can not really
tell, now, whether the disciples are Hebrews or Italians. These ancient
painters never succeeded in denationalizing themselves. The Italian
artists painted Italian Virgins, the Dutch painted Dutch Virgins, the
Virgins of the French painters were Frenchwomen--none of them ever put
into the face of the Madonna that indescribable something which proclaims
the Jewess, whether you find her in New York, in Constantinople, in
Paris, Jerusalem, or in the empire of Morocco. I saw in the Sandwich
Islands, once, a picture copied by a talented German artist from an
engraving in one of the American illustrated papers. It was an allegory,
representing Mr. Davis in the act of signing a secession act or some such
document. Over him hovered the ghost of Washington in warning attitude,
and in the background a troop of shadowy soldiers in Continental uniform
were limping with shoeless, bandaged feet through a driving snow-storm.
Valley Forge was suggested, of course. The copy seemed accurate, and yet
there was a discrepancy somewhere. After a long examination I discovered
what it was--the shadowy soldiers were all Germans! Jeff Davis was a
German! even the hovering ghost was a German ghost! The artist had
unconsciously worked his nationality into the picture. To tell the
truth, I am getting a little perplexed about John the Baptist and his
portraits. In France I finally grew reconciled to him as a Frenchman;
here he is unquestionably an Italian. What next? Can it be possible
that the painters make John the Baptist a Spaniard in Madrid and an
Irishman in Dublin?

We took an open barouche and drove two miles out of Milan to "see ze
echo," as the guide expressed it. The road was smooth, it was bordered
by trees, fields, and grassy meadows, and the soft air was filled with
the odor of flowers. Troops of picturesque peasant girls, coming from
work, hooted at us, shouted at us, made all manner of game of us, and
entirely delighted me. My long-cherished judgment was confirmed. I
always did think those frowsy, romantic, unwashed peasant girls I had
read so much about in poetry were a glaring fraud.

We enjoyed our jaunt. It was an exhilarating relief from tiresome sight-
seeing.

We distressed ourselves very little about the astonishing echo the guide
talked so much about. We were growing accustomed to encomiums on wonders
that too often proved no wonders at all. And so we were most happily
disappointed to find in the sequel that the guide had even failed to rise
to the magnitude of his subject.

We arrived at a tumble-down old rookery called the Palazzo Simonetti--a
massive hewn-stone affair occupied by a family of ragged Italians.
A good-looking young girl conducted us to a window on the second floor
which looked out on a court walled on three sides by tall buildings. She
put her head out at the window and shouted. The echo answered more times
than we could count. She took a speaking trumpet and through it she
shouted, sharp and quick, a single "Ha!" The echo answered:

"Ha!--ha!----ha!--ha!--ha!-ha! ha! h-a-a-a-a-a!" and finally went off
into a rollicking convulsion of the jolliest laughter that could be
imagined. It was so joyful--so long continued--so perfectly cordial and
hearty, that every body was forced to join in. There was no resisting
it.

Then the girl took a gun and fired it. We stood ready to count the
astonishing clatter of reverberations. We could not say one, two, three,
fast enough, but we could dot our notebooks with our pencil points almost
rapidly enough to take down a sort of short-hand report of the result.
My page revealed the following account. I could not keep up, but I did
as well as I could.

I set down fifty-two distinct repetitions, and then the echo got the
advantage of me. The doctor set down sixty-four, and thenceforth the
echo moved too fast for him, also. After the separate concussions could
no longer be noted, the reverberations dwindled to a wild, long-sustained
clatter of sounds such as a watchman's rattle produces. It is likely
that this is the most remarkable echo in the world.

The doctor, in jest, offered to kiss the young girl, and was taken a
little aback when she said he might for a franc! The commonest gallantry
compelled him to stand by his offer, and so he paid the franc and took
the kiss. She was a philosopher. She said a franc was a good thing to
have, and she did not care any thing for one paltry kiss, because she had
a million left. Then our comrade, always a shrewd businessman, offered
to take the whole cargo at thirty days, but that little financial scheme
was a failure.

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